zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » A call for wisdom, White House edition

A call for wisdom, White House edition

[ by Charless Cameron — frankly, waiting for a return to wisdom, or at least something closer to it ]

In the White House there’s an inscription over the mantel of the State Dining Room which reads:

I Pray Heaven To Bestow The Best Of Blessings On This House And All that shall hereafter Inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof.

That’s from our first president, John Adams, in his letter to his wife, Abigail, but it resonates down to our day.

How do we recognize wisdom?

I don’t believe we can legislate that only the honest and wise can attain the presidency, though we might do well to have Robert Bolt‘s Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons at the head of the Justice department — Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England who famously said, answering Roper who said he’d cut down all the laws to offer the Devil no protection:

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.


Thomas More was, no doubt a man with his own flaws, and the flaws of his times. Flaws, okay.

Where is a true sense of justice? Of honor? Of integrity? Where is a man for all seasons?

5 Responses to “A call for wisdom, White House edition”

  1. Scott Says:

    Just nitpicking, but our first president was George Washington, not John Adams. Adams was second.

    And that was an amazing movie.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Oy, that’s not nitpicking, that’s a serious correction, revealing the weakness of my Brit education and subsequant lack of intelligent learning. If you’d had asked me a week ago, I’d have known Washington, and Adans would have been a very periphrtal figure, but my spur of the moment thinking overwrote that on this occasion, focused as I was on Asdams’ quotation, with surprising ease. Thanks for the correction.

  3. Grurray Says:

    Welcome back Charles, and happy birthday. You were sorely missed.
    I was reading Blake awhile ago, I think because of one of your posts, and I came across this bit-
    “Unorganized innocence: an impossibility. Innocence dwells with wisdom, but never with ignorance,”
    Blake is reported to have written in the margins of the Four Zoas in response to his questions,
    “How is it we have walk’d through fires and yet are not consum’d?
    How is it that all things are chang’d, even as in ancient times?”
    Questions that were posed after Blake’s usual fantastical imaginings of a previous question, ‘what’s the price of experience?’
    It sounds to me like a clue of where to follow the scent. Outward experience is costly, but we still somehow make it through the trials. Shielding us from being consumed is, ironically, remaining innocent – in the Blake sense of internal, perceptual innocence – before the principles and ideals all those laws are planted upon.

  4. FDChief Says:

    It’s worth recalling that the wonderful Paul Scofield’s reading of those words Bolt wrote were the words of a 20th Century playwright, not a 16th Century chancellor of England during whose term ensured the burning of heretics and threatened worse if the pernicious danger of radical Protestant terrorism (or the Tudor equivalent) wasn’t extirpated.

    There have been and are “men (and women) for all seasons”. But the historical More was not really one of them, and the ease with which Bolt’s More obscures history’s is a cautionary tale for those of us who attribute, or wish to attribute, unlikely virtues to supposed heroes of an earlier time.

  5. Grurray Says:

    I like quotes, so here are some that might be of further relevance to the discussion.
    We’re probably all familiar with the first:
    “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”
    That was the famous poem by Whittington in 1520. The last line was also used a little bit later by Erasmus of Rotterdam to describe More, his friend.
    The second might not be as well known:
    “Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.”
    This statement was made by Martin Luther after touring the battlefields of the German peasant revolt in 1525. Thousands were being killed in the war, and thousands more were killed after Luther’s missive.
    It was some sad gravity, indeed, as the times requireth. The countryside isn’t just planted thick with laws, as More didn’t say in that speech, but it’s also thick with customs, traditions, and order that shouldn’t be turned upside down, if we are to believe Luther.
    The next one that comes to mind is the biblical passage everyone knows from the pop songs and church picnics:
    “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
    A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
    A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…
    A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace…
    etc, etc…”
    You know the rest. It helps to read it aloud to purge any Roger McGuinn sing-songiness.
    This is a different way to think of seasons than the way the movie portrays, with the changing meteorological conditions shown from the Tower cell window. Here the seasons are those occasions and tribulations that inevitably occur in the patterns of human behavior and interactions. Not confined to an earlier time, but still ongoing today. Some happen outside reason or understanding, and the best explanation we can come up with is to trust and have faith in God’s plan, or the Universal Designs, or some other such principle meaning obviously encompassing a world that marches on despite not making sense.
    From the aforementioned Erasmus in a letter he wrote in 1521 where he gave a description of More:
    “At first liberal studies had a bad name for depriving their devoted adherents of the common touch. There is no journey, no business however voluminous or difficult, that can take the book out of More’s hand; and yet it would be hard to find anyone who was more truly a man for all seasons and all men, who was more ready to oblige, more easily available for meeting, more lively in conversation, or who combined so much real wisdom with such charm of character.”
    The editors add a footnote which provides me (or us, if you’re still following) with a final quote from 1 Corinthians 9:
    “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”
    There was only one truly perfect man to walk the earth (if you’re into to that sort of thing, which I am). While the rest of us can never achieve perfection in this world, we can strive to try to follow the example. In this case, that example leads us to a man for all things, including condemnations leading to death, in order to reach the ultimate fulfillment of holding firm to divine faith when worldly reason not only failed that man but came crashing down upon him.

Switch to our mobile site